Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 21, 2013: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:   Amos 8:1-12  +  Psalm 52  +  Colossians 1:15-28  +  Luke 10:38-42

Here’s a topic you’ve not heard me spend much time on: God’s wrath.

So, let’s go there.  It doesn’t take an especially close reading of the bible to uncover the fact that God is quite frequently represented as angry.  And when God is angry, it’s at humanity.  Whatever relationship God has to sharks and redwoods and geological fault lines is really beyond our knowing, but our scriptures are not silent on the point of God’s feelings toward humanity.  God loves us.  God pleads with us.  God forgives us.  And God is angry with us.

It’s hard for me to say that.  Even as I wrote this sermon, I had to stop myself from softening those words.  I wanted to say, “And, sometimes, God is angry with us” or “God is angry with some of us.”  But those are both dodges.  Those both imply that either we are, for the most part, doing the right thing — doing well — and only occasionally breaking God’s heart with our disregard for and neglect of the weakest and most needy, the despised and neglected among us; or that most of us are doing right by one another from the point of view of God, and that the real problems of this world can be laid at the feet of a few wicked evildoers.

These are the sorts of dodges that people make all the time as we deal with our relationships with one another out here in the “real” world: anger can be minimized because we imagine that we are “good” most of the time, or that most of us are good.

These rationalizations, while they may serve to shield us from our own fear of accusation, our discomfort with anger, and our resentment of any authority that asserts itself over us, raise two basic theological conundrums.

The first, our urge to assert that we are each basically good, is so difficult to challenge.  Particularly from a pulpit.  While it may not be the case across the spectrum of Christianities practiced throughout the world, and certainly is not the case for Christianity across time, it is the case that in the global north and west, in the mainline Protestant tradition to which we as Lutherans in the United States belong, there is a great reluctance to speak of God’s judgment.  We don’t want to be affiliated with those other kinds of Christians.  The kind who preach hellfire and brimstone.  The kind who divide the world into us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure.

So, instead, we join the broader culture in a kind of psychological Christianity, or therapeutic Christianity, that begins with the affirmation that God created the world, looked upon it and called it good; and that ends with the affirmation that God “so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son” without giving much attention to the reality of sin that necessitated a divine intervention in the life of the world in the first place.

When we make that first move, to say that we are mostly good, in a sense we are saying that we mostly didn’t need God’s intervention in Christ.  That we mostly had this under control ourselves, and that we’re mostly able to clean up our own messes.

This kind of logic reminds me of my senior year of college.  I was mostly done with my coursework.  I’d lived abroad in Costa Rica for a summer.  I’d completed a 3-month internship in adolescent mental health.  I was finally living off campus in a grown up apartment.  I was living life on my own terms, taking care of myself.  Except near the end of the semester, when I hadn’t quite budgeted to make my students loans and the paychecks from my part-time job stretch, and I needed to call my folks and see if they could help me just a little bit until the beginning of the month.

We’re mostly good, most of the time, and isn’t that enough — or so we wonder in a question that mostly misses the point.  Because when we aren’t “good,” when we can’t pull ourselves up, when we come up short, when we find ourselves insufficient to the crisis at hand, the question isn’t whether or not we’ll  somehow become better than we’ve ever been before.  It’s whether or not there is a power and a presence beyond our own that can sustain us through the crisis.  It is not, fundamentally, our goodness — our sufficiency — that counts, but God’s.

If, when faced with God’s anger or wrath, our first dodge is to assert that we’re good most of the time, the second is to claim that most of us are good.  That it’s just a few really rotten apples that spoil the bunch.  Week to week our minds turn to different names to populate that list.  We have our favorite politicians to blame.  Then there are the easy targets, the perpetrators of heinous crimes, the public figures whose private scandals come to light.  The constant parade of big news stories in the papers, on the news, across the internet, conspire to make it possible for us to believe that somehow all the responsibility for the world’s brokenness can be laid at the feet of a few mutually agreed upon failures.

This is not how the prophet Amos sees the world.

“The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again … The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:2b,8,11)

For the prophet Amos, the nation of Israel is not a community of mostly good people who do good most of the time.  It is a community of people who cannot separate themselves one from another.  It is not the king or the people, but the whole nation together that must give an account for the treatment of the needy and the poor among them.  The faithfulness of Israel is not counted by the prophet as a private affair, but as a public witness to a public relationship between God and God’s people.

To the prophet Amos’ way of seeing, the ongoing and persistent presence of poverty in Israel testifies to an economy that values profit over people, such that business owners are trying to squeeze more labor out of the workers, asking “when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5a)  It is an economy that offers less and less of value for more and more of people’s savings, “we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances.” (Amos 8:5b)

Amos accuses the entire nation of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”  The prophet suggests that the greed of Israel’s economy has grown so great that creditors are foreclosing on those who cannot pay their debts for even minor purchases, not just home mortgages but even the sandals on their feet.  The economy has grown so greedy that the ancient tradition of leaving the gleanings of the field for the hungry has been forgotten, and even the most basic of necessities, food, cannot be counted upon.

Amos’ anger is not directed against one leader, or a handful of elites.  Amos brings a word from the Lord to Israel to say that this nation as a whole has forgotten who they are before God.  In response, God’s wrath will take the form of a famine — not of food or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.

Again, in my own efforts to understand divine anger and divine punishment, I draw on my experiences of having been a child, and the ways my parents tried to offer me correction.  After many patient explanations, after plenty of warnings, there did come a time, especially as I grew older, when my parents decided that the way I would learn best was to suffer the natural consequences for my decisions and actions.  If I stayed up too late reading under the covers, dawn still came at the same time and I would have to go to school exhausted.  If I spent my money on junk food and diversions, there would be no new clothes for the new school year.  Actions had consequences.

That’s how I hear Amos’ forecasted famine.  If the nation continues to ignore the terms of God’s covenant; if the people continue to enjoy the privileges they reap off the backs of the poor, the needy and the neglected; then they will suffer the natural consequences of a society that has gone bad from the inside out.  Like a bowl of overripe fruit, what had been given them for nourishment will go bad and spoil.  If the people refuse to listen to God’s word, then they will be unable to access the abundant life it brings.  Natural consequences.

My friend Anne Howard, Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society, an ecumenical leadership development program that identifies and nurtures an emerging generation of Progressive church leaders for the sake of the common good, has taken to signing off on all her emails with the phrase, “we’re all in this together.”  It’s the perfect closing for correspondence from an organization that takes its name from Jesus’ most famous sermon, the one in which he said, “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “blessed are those who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

Jesus, whose own prophetic ministry drew on the legacy and authority of the prophets of Israel, shared their concern for the poor and the hungry, the grieving and the reviled.  Like the prophets of old, his ministry was an earthy, embodied, political ministry.  He, too, talked about the needs of the sick, the poor, the outcast, the stranger.  In fact, when he spoke of heaven, it was almost always to say that it had drawn near, that it was breaking into this world, and not breaking us out.

In her classic essay on feminist Christian ethics, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Bev Harrison writes,

“Otherworldliness” in religion has two very different sources in our social world of knowledge.  One sort of otherworldly religion appears among the poor and downtrodden, reflecting a double dynamic in their experience: It reflects a hopelessness about this world that is engendered by living daily with the evil of oppression, but it also fuels and encourages an ongoing struggle against the present order by conjuring a better time and a better place, beyond the oppressive here and now.

However, an entirely different form of otherworldliness appears amongst those of us who have never been marginalized, who have lived well above the daily struggle to survive, when our privileges are threatened. This form of otherworldliness is merely escapist, and its political consequences are entirely reactionary. Its result is to encourage denial of responsibility for the limited power that we do have, and it always results in reinforcing the status quo.”

Harrison connects this observation about our tendency to privatize religion and assign it to some other world with her insights on anger when she writes,

It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin.  Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to other and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is — and it always is — a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.

God’s anger, God’s wrath, is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  It is a vivid form of caring that signals God’s resistance to our human desire to pull away from God (“I’m mostly good”) and to pull away from each other (“most of us are good”).

Let me try and wrap this up with an anecdote from my own life over the past week that may illustrate what I’ve been trying to say here.

trayvon-martinThe thing that send me searching my bookshelves for Bev Harrison’s essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in the first place was my abiding anger over the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I was in Atlanta with friends, Black and White, when the verdict was made public, friends I’ve known for over a decade and with whom I’ve engaged in some of the most intense political, ethical and theological conversations in my life. As we shared the news with one another, we barely spoke.  The pain of the wound of racism that is at the heart of the public furor over this verdict is overwhelming.

As the following week wore on, as Kerry and I sat at our dining room table, as you and your families sat at your dining room tables, my anger has only grown.  My anger is so deep on this point that it is difficult to speak.  And I wondered, “is there anything redemptive about this anger?  Can anything good come from these feelings that surface and are submerged over and over again?  Is there any value to this wrath?”

Bev Harrison’s answer is: yes.  The power of anger in the work of love is to give us the visceral evidence we need that the fabric of our relationships is torn, and that action is required.  The power of anger in the work of love is the voice of the prophet Amos, delivering a message from an angry, loving God that the creation, which God looked at and called good, for which God sent God’s only begotten Son, is aching under so much political, economic, and environmental abuse.

The power of anger in the work of love is the sound of the organizer knocking at your door, or the call from the program director looking for volunteers, or the letter that comes to your mailbox asking for a donation.

The power of anger in the work of love is the energy required to pull ourselves out of the hopelessness that is always trying to own us, to convince us that the world as it is is the world as it will always be.

The power of anger in the work of love is that voice that rises up inside each one of us, that voice that comes first from God, that says, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”  It is the voice inside us that has always known that we are all of us in this together and that refuses to be silenced.

The power of anger in the work of love is the end of the famine of hearing the words of the Lord, and when we understand the power of anger in the work of love in this way, then God’s wrath is not to be feared but to be longed for.  For it is God’s anger, spoken through God’s prophets, like Amos and you and me, that sets the spark that starts a revolution.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 2, 2013: Second Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-39  +  Psalm 96  +  Galatians 1:1-12  +  Luke 7:1-10

Have you ever wanted to call down fire?

I’m talking about God’s wrath.  God’s judgment.  Proof that God is God.  That the so-called way it is, is not the way it is supposed to be, and that there is a higher authority than any bureaucracy can produce, than any government can select, than any church can own.  That there is a God who cares about what happens to the world God created, and that we are going to be called to account for our management and mismanagement of God’s creation, our treatment and mistreatment of God’s people.

Have you ever looked at the world and wanted to call down fire?

I have, and recently at that.  Months and months of organizing for marriage equality in the State of Illinois, and in the end not even a vote?  Just silence from the Illinois House.  I wanted fire.  A fresh tally of victims to gun violence here in Chicago last Memorial Day weekend, six dead and eleven wounded, as nearby as Humboldt Park; and in response, the House breaks its silence to push forward a carry and conceal bill that would make it easier for people to walk the streets of our neighborhoods with deadly weapons?  I wanted fire.

And you have cried out for fire as well, I know.  You are battling bureaucracies that put children in harm’s way.  You are fighting for the rights of the weak, the poor, the hungry, the disabled.  You are watching as big business treats your co-workers and yourselves like cogs in a machine.  You are tending to the bodies and minds of the uninsured, and seeing the impacts of generational poverty on entire families.  You are calling for an end to war in a country obsessed with violence.  You are teaching in classrooms where children have gone without food, without support, without safety, and you are being told year after year to do more with less.

I can only imagine how badly and how often you must pray for God’s fire to come down and burn away the red tape, the apathy, the machine, the system, the guns, the drones, and all the wickedness of this world.

Today we begin a summer long series focusing on the prophets of Israel, and for this season we will be a School of the Prophets.  You may remember that two weeks ago it was Pentecost Sunday, and we heard these words from the book of Acts,

In the 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, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

Then, last Sunday, as we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we affirmed the Church’s faith that there is only one God, but who is known as and in community.  We heard from the gospel of John these words from Jesus,

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth; for [the Spirit] will not speak on [its] own, but will speak whatever [it] hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. [The Spirit] will glorify me, because [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that [God, our Parent] has is mine.  For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15)

In truth, ever since Easter we have been studying texts that make it clear to us that one of the meanings, one of the implications of Christ’s resurrection is that the Holy Spirit of God has been set free in the world; that the Spirit has a message for the world that needs a messenger; and that God’s messenger is the church, the baptized body of Christ in the world.  Jesus said, “the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15) and “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)

And then, like Elijah whom we meeting again for the first time this morning and who eventually is taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, Jesus seems to withdraw from the story leaving its next chapter in our hands.  We are inheritors of a mission, a commission, and a message.  Living in the last days, in a Pentecostal epoch, we are now called to be prophets, and this is our school.

As we learn about our calling, our ministry as prophets, we can learn from the prophets of Israel, in whose tradition the Lord Jesus Christ stood, whose words and wisdom would have been his bread and butter as a young man in occupied Israel in the time of the Roman Empire.

Jesus obviously would have known the stories of Elijah, who lived in Israel during the reign of King Ahab, who ruled four generations after the reign of King Solomon.  King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, are remembered for bringing the worship of foreign gods back to Israel, in particular the god known as Baal.

It’s difficult to know what the actual religious beliefs and practices of the neighboring nations who worshipped Baal were, since most of the information we have comes from these biblical texts that aren’t concerned with religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  But I think we would be missing the point if we simply read this story as a warning about other religions.  What’s being contested here isn’t the number of followers each deity, Yahweh or Baal, can muster.  What is at stake is the worldview they represent within the story of Israel’s relationship with God.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

There is no doubt that in the Bible, an especially in this cluster of narratives, Baalism is heavily caricatured in Yahwistic representation.  Indeed, we have only the caricature so that the narrative is not, and does not intend to be, an evenhanded exposition.  The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic.  Thus it must not be thought that the contest concerns mere religious symbols or slogans; it is rather a deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community. (Brueggemann, Walter.  Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 2000. p. 219)

In other words, the problem with the worship of Baal isn’t that God’s honor is tarnished, or that God’s feelings are hurt, because people are worshipping some other god.  It is instead that, what the worship of Baal represents — at least in these stories — is a turning away from the ethical and moral character of the God of Israel, an ethic of care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; and ethic that took form in these stories in the person of a king who had first been a shepherd, who cared for God’s people by bringing them together to love and care for one another.

The worship of Baal represents a different kind of governance which leads to a different kind of community and a different kind of world, one in which power is used to secure wealth for the wealthy, and the lives of the workers and the weak are considered the cost of doing business.  It is the kind of world Jesus knew everything about, growing up under Roman rule.  It is the kind of world we know everything about today, living in the heart of a global empire.

Elijah’s first prophetic action is to declare a drought.  This is more than an agricultural crisis, this is a sign that the nation has set itself again God.  In these ancient times, the king was understood to be the rain-maker, the one who assured wealth and prosperity by guiding the nation in accordance with God’s will for the people.  The absence of rain is a sign that God’s favor is absent from Ahab’s rule.  Rather than repenting, Ahab and Jezebel scour the nation looking for the prophet Elijah whose words of judgment are undermining their power and authority.  Finally, after three years of drought, the conflict has come to a head in the story we read this morning.  Elijah faces Ahab and challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest.  They will set offerings on altars to each of their respective gods, and they will see which offering is consumed by divine fire.

The beginning of the match tells us something important about what God through Elijah is really trying to achieve.  In the face of royal power and a legion of enemy priests, Elijah turns and speaks to the people, who are the actual objects of God’s concern.  He asks them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)

This simple question, buried at the beginning of a spectacle, is the heart of the matter.  The question always before God’s people is, in what god do you actually put your trust?  Is is the god of the paycheck or the inheritance that will really take care of you?  Is it the god of shrewd decisions and hard work that will provide for you and yours?  Is it the god of the right family or the right connections that will give you an advantage?  Is it the god of cynicism and low expectations that will protect you from the dangers of wanting more for your life?

Or is it the God known in community as community, who does not try to protect God’s own self from danger or harm, but is willing to endure every trial and humiliation to free the creation and its many peoples from patterns of life, systems of domination, that threaten to destroy us all?

Which god do you worship, and how?

Tellingly, the people do not say a word.  They are as silent as our lawmakers, waiting to see how the chips will fall.

Which gods do we worship?

Then the contests begin, and we begin to see the price paid for worshipping other gods.  As Elijah cracks jokes and taunts the priests of Baal (“Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or he is on a journey, or perhaps he must be awakened.”), they begin to mutilate themselves.  They injure themselves by cutting their flesh with swords and lances until they are covered in their own blood.

What price do we pay for chasing after the gods who cannot save us?  We pay with our own lives.  The paycheck ends. The inheritance is spent. Our decisions are exposed as dreams. Our bodies fail. Our families turn their backs on us. Our social networks are a mile wide and an inch deep. Our attempt to escape notice works, and we end up invisible in our own lives.  The gods we invent for ourselves can never save us, but we will spend our lives, we will pour out our lifeblood, chasing after them.

After Baal’s priests fail to summon their god, it’s Elijah’s turn.  Again, he gives his attention to the people, not the king, not the other priests.  He builds an altar for his sacrifice by placing twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel on top of one another.  He reminds them of their history, that out of many peoples they were made one.  That out of many nations, they were made one nation.  That their strength came from the ways that they leaned on each other, built on each other, rested on each other.  Elijah creates a symbol of the underlying reality, that we the people together are the altar where God’s holiness appears.

Then Elijah drenches that altar, that sign of God’s people, three times with water — a baptism for that which is being offered to God, and assurance that what will happen next is no accident, no random spark falling on dry wood.

Finally, Elijah prays not for himself, but for the people he has been trying to reach. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).  And the Lord God answers the words of that prayer by sending down fire to consume the offering, the wood, the altar, the earth and even the water.

When I am angry at the world, as I have been these last few days, I want to call down God’s fire to burn up the heartless bureaucrats, the cowardly legislators, the violent warmongers, the absent parents.  But God’s fire does not consume offerings made to absentee deities.  Instead, God’s fire comes to rest on the altar of God’s own people and takes what we are willing to offer, transforming those offerings into signs that God’s Spirit is still at work in the world, moving toward us and through us and out into the world for the sake of healing, and liberation, and mercy, and justice.

Rain and Fire

God’s flames, the ones that fell on God’s altar, the ones that raised Elijah to heaven in his chariot, the ones that appeared above the apostles’ heads that Pentecost morning are signs of God’s prophetic word, given to God’s prophets.  We pray for that fire each time we gather, not to destroy the forces that oppose us, but to kindle in us a passion to tell God’s truth to a world burdened by false gods.

Oh, God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.

Amen.

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