Sermon: Sunday, February 28, 2016: Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9  +  Psalm 63:1-8  +  1 Corinthians 10:1-13  +  Luke 13:1-9

So, three powerful, evocative texts from the scriptures this morning. Isaiah offers the image of “wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1); Paul lectures the church in Corinth about idolatry with examples about the various and horrible ways the Israelites died in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-13); and Jesus interrogates the given assumptions about why bad things happen to some people, calling those who follow him to repent before they perish (Luke 13:1-9). The obvious choice would be Isaiah, right? Let’s go back to that invitation to feast on rich food, or at least the parable of the gardener who advocates for the unproductive tree. But no, I think I’ll try my hand at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, with its haunting reminder of the more than twenty-thousand who died in the wilderness because of sexual immorality, because, you know, Lent.

Before we can dive into the prickly thicket of these particular verses, let’s just remember for a moment the audience to whom Paul was writing. They were a church divided for a multitude of reasons. The community included some Jews, but mostly Gentile converts. They were poor and working people, some of them were slaves, though a few were wealthy, possibly even nobles. They were women and men who were deeply at odds with each other, while somehow remaining fairly comfortable with the dominant culture’s practices of excessive litigation, the commodification of women’s bodies, and feasting on food sacrificed to pagan gods. In other words, they were a microcosm of the surrounding world whose conduct toward one another showed very little evidence that their experience of God in Christ had made any difference in how they lived their lives.

In his letter up to this point, Paul has called on the community to transcend their petty factions where some claim to be following Paul’s teachings, while others are following the teachings of another Jewish Christian named Apollos, yet others are following Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, and a final group claiming to follow Christ — though Paul fails to understand how one can claim to follow Christ while continuing to divide Christ’s body. While the Corinthians put their trust in their interpretations of various teachers and leaders within the church, Paul flips their argument on its head by proclaiming his own faith in “God’s foolishness” by demonstrating power through a cross, choosing “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and “what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:27)

Having re-established a common foundation for Christian faith and life, something deeper and more trust-worthy than all their self-interested rationalizations and accommodations to the dominant culture’s dysfunctions, namely the witness of Jesus’ self-giving for the sake of love, Paul begins to try and reunify the church, stating, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:9)

By the time we get to the passage we just read this morning, Paul had tackled head on the issues that were dividing the church, from issues of morality and advice on marriage to methods of conflict resolution and finally the matter of eating food offered to idols. Now, as we join this argument already in progress, he is using language powerfully, masterfully, to implicate this divided community in a shared reality. Let’s tease it apart.

“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:1-4)

Paul is writing to a community that is mostly Gentile, but still partly Jewish. Yet he says to them, “our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.” He’s telling them the story of the Exodus, the story that belongs to the ethnic minority in their congregation, the ethnic minority Paul himself is a member of, and he’s asserting that it’s everyone’s story. It’s hard for us today to hear how shocking that is, because Christians have been reading Jewish scriptures for two thousand years as our story, so it seems perfectly natural. But it wasn’t always. I don’t think it was here.

MLK-in-Birmingham-jailIt would be as if Martin Luther King, Jr. — but the MLK from 50 years ago, before he was a saint with a national holiday — were to write a letter to a community of mostly white people, with perhaps a few people of color, you know, like Lutherans, and say, “our ancestors gathered in the woods beyond the plantation fields and sang songs from the old country, songs of freedom, songs that gave them the courage to steal away in the dark of night and wade in the river waters as they made their way north toward freedom.” Would we even hear the message, or would we be like, “Wait a minute. Did that Black preacher just call me Black?!”

Except it doesn’t stop there, because Paul also said, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Now Paul is talking to the Jewish minority, as one Jew to another, saying that their foundational stories, their crossing at the Red Sea, their water from the rock, their pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, was Jesus all along. It would be as if … well it would be just exactly that, as if a rabbi were to walk into a synagogue and say, “all your sacred stories are really about Jesus.” You can actually imagine exactly how that would go, because we’ve been living with the rift it caused two thousand years ago ever since as ethnic prejudice made enemies and oppressors out of people and communities that Paul called sisters and brothers.

Because what he’s saying is your story is my story. My people are your people. The body of Christ is not divided but one, and anything that harms one of us harms all of us. These horrible stories he references from Hebrew scriptures about the twenty three thousand who fell in a single day (v. 8), or those who were destroyed by serpents (v.9), or who were destroyed on account of their complaining (v. 10) — well, they’re horrible stories, which we can unpack some other time, because the reason Paul cites them here is not to terrify the church with threats of an angry, vengeful God, but to point out that we do not live or die alone, that we are all in this together. He is telling stories from Hebrew scripture about times when the idolatry that caught hold of a few had devastating consequences for the entire community. And while that may not sound fair, doesn’t it strike you as actually being very, very true?

Doesn’t it seem as though we are living in precisely such a moment, when the idolatry of a few might bring about the ruin of us all? When our inability to confront the false gods that some of us have turned to to provide the illusion of safety in the middle of a wilderness of chaos and doubt might be the very things that finally kill us all?

And, what’s worse, is that we are all so sure we know what the false gods are! They’re the ones those other, crazy people are following! You know, the unrestrained gun culture; or the racism and xenophobia that rules our borders; or the austerity that has gutted public services to the most vulnerable of our neighbors; or the denial of death as a fact of life that has paralyzed our healthcare system. Our story about what is wrong with the world, which is generally just our story about other people.

But what about their story about us? What truth is there to the accusations leveled at us by brothers and sisters we refuse to acknowledge as members of the one human family to which we all belong? How offended would we be to hear them tell our story of oppression as if it were their own, as if they had a right to the same kind of longing for a better world, even if their better world is one we would never want to live in, and the path to getting there is one we would never want to walk?

Can we afford another two thousand years of unresolved family feuds? Do we even have the luxury of another two thousand years?

Paul writes, “so if you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” (v. 12) It’s a warning against the false pride of the self-righteous, and I will confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I am the worst of all sinners when it comes to this. I am so self-righteous. I am so convinced that I see clearly what others are too dumb or blind to understand. I won’t ask you to tell me I’m wrong, because you know me too well, and we both know it would be a lie. And I won’t say that we all suffer from the same sin, because we don’t. Some of you possess a humility that puts me to shame. You live from a place of selfless love and genuine compassion that sees people before politics or positions. You minister to me, because I see Christ in you, and it calls me to repent.

And repentance is not synonymous with feeling bad about one’s self. It isn’t rehearsing a feeling of guilt. Repentance is turning to face the God who never wearies of forgiving us so that our minds can be renewed and our broken hearts can be healed. Repentance is the dawning epiphany that God’s foolish love is so much stronger than our “smart” self-righteousness. Repentance is a thirsty person finally realizing that they’re standing knee-deep in water, or the exhausted worker finally asking what might truly feed them. Repentance is a rejection of the logic of ownership, which throws away anything or anyone that doesn’t produce the thing we want to see, to have, right now, in favor of the logic of the gardener, who is willing to wait, to be patient, with all that is still possible for you and for me and for those who do not look, or think, or talk, or vote like you or like me. Because God is faithful, and will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but instead will give us another year, and another after that, and another after that, until we realize that our strength is each other, and that together we are being made new.

And what is it that you need to repent of? What false gods have you put your trust in? Whose story are you refusing to hear as your own? Which community do you hold at arm’s length? Who is too different for you to love? How has your heart grown hard, and when did it happen?

planting-a-tree--banner-3There is a reason we hear this hard scripture halfway through Lent, this season when the church prepares people to be baptized, and calls us each to be honest about the ways we have all fallen down in our baptismal vocations. Because if we cannot be honest about our failings, then we cannot experience the relief of forgiveness or the joy of a new beginning. And that is what God is always offering — a new beginning. God, whose first act was to plant a garden and populate it with life, is always granting the extra year, the year of the Lord’s favor, the year Jesus proclaimed when he unrolled the scroll and sat down to teach. We are living our whole lives in that extra year.

Let’s not spend another minute of it despising or condescending to another another. Let’s tell our stories. Let’s listen to each others, imagining that they could be our own.

Let’s fall in love with each other like long lost relatives.



Sermon: Sunday, March 22, 2015: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34  +  Psalm 51:1-12  +  Hebrews 5:5-10  +  John 12:20-33

I’ve been thinking a lot about vows recently. Eighty-eight days and counting ’til Kerry and I get married. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part. They are terrifying promises.

They’re terrifying because I’ve seen the spectrum of better and worse, rich and poor, sickness and health. I know those things happen to all sorts of people. People enter into marriage not knowing what kind of future awaits them, and they promise to stay with each other through whatever hits the windshield as they race through the days appointed to them on this earth.

And it’s not that being single exempts anyone from the full range of possible futures, better or worse, it’s just that we don’t have to make promises to stick with ourselves. We’re already stuck with ourselves (and don’t we know it?). But in marriage we make a promise to stick with someone else, even when it would be far easier to go our separate ways.

I say all this knowing there are plenty of divorced people in the room, knowing that for some of you divorce saved your life, or your health. I say this knowing there are many who have been barred from making marriage promises in sanctuaries and court houses, and have until very recently felt locked out of the covenant of marriage. This isn’t a meditation on the sanctity of marriage, but on the weight of promises made in public, promises made to yourself and others. Promises made to God.

These promises terrify because they impose limits on the self for the sake of the greater whole. While it might be easier, less expensive, strategically advantageous to dissolve a covenant when the going gets rough, our promises keep us in place, working through the hard times, the worse, the poorer, the sickness, for the sake of the unit of community larger than any one person in it: the marriage, the family, the congregation, the body of Christ.

Four weeks ago we welcomed Ryan Coffee to a period of preparation for his baptism, just as generations of Christians have done going back to the time of the early church. A couple weeks ago Kerry and I had Ryan and Rachel over to our home to share a meal and talk about baptism in its scriptural and historical context. As we studied the ancient process of preparation for baptism — which involved three years of study and mentoring by older members of the community followed by an intense Lenten period of fasting and daily prayer all before a catechumen ever joined the congregation in receiving the Lord’s Supper — we recognized that our contemporary culture, including congregational life, just doesn’t support that kind of personal sacrifice in preparation for promise-making. We slip in and out of states of commitment, rather than preparing to make and keep covenants.

The models we do have for extensive preparation before making promises may be the work that doctors and lawyers do to prepare for vocations that require an oath. The lengthy process of preparation to practice law or medicine, the intense academic work paired with models of apprenticeship and supervised activity mean that by the time those professionals take their vows, they have already practiced self-sacrifice for the sake of the good of the whole, the guild of which they become a part, and the society that guild exists to serve.

Baptism is a vocation drenched in promises. In it we invite those who desire to live a Christian life to notice, name and resist all the forces in this world that rebel against the nature and character of God — to set themselves at odds with a world that privileges profit over people, that preaches scarcity in the midst of profligate abundance, that cultivates fear between people created to live in community. We ask them to do this knowing that it will cost them something, and that in some cases it may cost them everything. That’s right. In baptism we call one another to die, and to die over and over again, to patterns of life designed to support the individual at the expense of the community — except, in this case, we’re not balancing the needs of the one against the needs of the many, but the needs of the whole, the needs of all. A call to love not only our friends and our neighbors, but our enemies.

In the waters of baptism we say that the old self drowns, and that we die and rise with Christ. This is very much like what Jesus himself says in this morning’s gospel reading, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) The covenant we make in baptism is not just about letting go of the bad to embrace the good, but about a lifelong practice of learning to let go of that which we may individually value and cherish in order to support what is needed for the good of the whole.

CommunityFor the last two years our Church Council has been reading and reflecting on a book by Peter Block titled Community: The Structures of Belonging as a way of thinking about how to strengthen and sustain our own community even as some of the structures that have supported our life together as a congregation for the last century begin to change. In the book he talks about the six conversations we need to have to build a trust-worthy community, conversations of invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment and gifts. At our Council meeting this past week we talked a lot about the commitment conversation. Block writes that “to be committed means you are willing to make a promise with no expectation of return; a promise void of barter and not conditional on another’s action. In the absence of this, you are constantly in the position of reacting to the choices of others. The cost of constantly reacting,” he writes, “is increased cynicism.”

As we continue to gather as a congregation in meetings like the one we’ll be having here in the sanctuary after worship, we need to keep having these six conversations with each other, we need to keep balancing conversations about invitation and possibility with conversations about ownership and commitment. We need to inquire of ourselves and one another how our Christian identity is a commitment and not a contract, how it is an invitation to die to ourselves, over and over, for the sake of the world. We need to ask what kinds of activities best support us in making those promises and keeping those promises, what patterns of gathering work best to remind us of who we are in light of God’s grace, a covenant of love that sees us in light of God’s irresistible future instead of our own irretrievable past. We need to wonder together what kind of tree might sprout from the seed planted in the earth that is us, the body of Christ, broken for the life of the world. What kind of difference we want to make in a world hungry for the fruit we might bear.

In light of all that God has committed to us, what will we commit to each other?


Sermon: Sunday, March 8, 2015: Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17  +  Psalm 19  +  1 Corinthians 1:18-25  +  John 2:13-22

Nancy has worked at McDonald’s full-time for the last ten years. She makes $8.25 an hour and has never received a raise, which means that even working full-time she lives below the poverty line. As the mother of two, to say it’s difficult to make ends meet is an understatement. It’s nearly impossible. So when Nancy noticed the help line advertised in McDonald’s employee newsletter, she called looking for resources for her and her family.

We’re all familiar enough with how big business operates in this country to not be shocked by what happened next.  Nancy described her situation to the help line operator, saying that she’d begun rationing food because there wasn’t enough to feed her family. The operator offered to connect her to a listing of all the food pantries in her community and asked if she was on SNAP, the federal government’s food assistance program for low-income families. When Nancy said that she also needed help paying for medical bills, the McDonald’s helpline suggested she enroll for Medicaid.

SQhjQKwGWe’re not shocked by these stories, not because they’re not shocking, but because they’re so common. We’ve heard the same story at Wal-Mart and other national chains. In the interest of creating a business friendly economy we’ve created one that is hostile to low-wage workers. An economy where a person can work full-time at minimum wage and still not be able to feed themselves and their family. Where one medical incident could make the difference between keeping things together and complete disaster.

What does it mean that we live in a society where the value we assign to the labor of our lowest paid workers isn’t enough to live on? Where 52% of fast food families are forced onto federal assistance to make ends meet? Where hard-working people are required to rely on the charity of their neighbors and corporations are allowed to grow richer and richer by passing along labor costs to the rest of society, which ends up subsidizing those cheap burgers and other products of the low-wage economy to the tune of $7 billion each year?

Throughout the season of Lent we have been talking about the covenants God has made with God’s people; beginning first with Noah and the flood, then last week with Abraham and Sarah.  This week we hear the story of God giving the law, what we call the Ten Commandments, to Moses at Mount Sinai.  The law was one more covenant, one more sign that God was binding God’s self to God’s people.

The law comes to a people who are in the process of reclaiming their freedom after generations of slavery in Egypt. Unlike Pharaoh’s laws, which establish regimes filled with physical and economic violence, God’s law is established in the context of the ongoing covenant between a loving God and a free people. It is a law that recognizes our tendency to make idols out of wealth and to treat people as objects in the pursuit of all that we desire. It is a law intended to humanize us rather than oppress us.

0806656050hWe have been given the law as a way to order and structure our life together, to tend the distribution of God’s good gifts among all of God’s people, and yet we deform the law and twist it to suit our own needs and ends without regard for the other.  God tells Moses to tell the people, “you shall not murder” and “you shall not steal.”  Luther, commenting on the fifth commandment (you shall not murder)  in his Small Catechism writes, “what does this mean? [that] we should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”  And, of the seventh commandment (you shall not steal) he writes, “we should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

And yet, we have created and sustained an economy of scarcity that rewards greed and violates both commandments in that it does not help and support our neighbors in their physical needs, nor does it help and improve their possessions and income. The situation is completely outrageous – reminding me of the bumper sticker that reads, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”  The only thing that prevents us from acknowledging our anger and the injustice of the situation is the fact that we have become so accustomed to it.  But not Jesus.

When Jesus goes up to Jerusalem in the gospel reading from John we hear this morning, he enters the temple – the place where the people have been commanded to go to receive the blessings of God’s covenant of love – and sees that between the entry to the temple and the foot of the altar a marketplace has sprung up.  Merchants in the temple, acting with the knowledge and consent of the religious establishment, are taking the wealth of the people and converting it into “acceptable” gifts for offering in the temple.  Jesus is enraged – the temple should be a place where God’s people see and taste and experience God’s free and unconditional love, and yet even that gift has become commodified.  And so Jesus drives the money-changers, the profiteers, out of God’s house saying, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Sisters and brothers, you are the beloved people of God – along with everyone else.  Your lives are sacred and holy, they are a gift from God – and so are everybody else’s.  It’s not just the needs of our fellow Americans that we are called to address, but today we are challenged to look at the systems of power and privilege that we are a part of and that we have the power to change.  We are challenged to do this regardless of whether we consider ourselves liberals or conservatives, whether we vote Democrat or Republican, whether we voted for the current President or not.  We are called to do this because we are a part of the nation that stood at the base of Mount Sinai when God made an eternal covenant with us that requires us to care for the life and livelihood of our neighbors.

At the center of our low-wage scandal there is a cross. Like the cross that bore Jesus, the low-wage cross is a sign of the world’s disregard for life, a sign of the empire values of profit and expansion over God’s values of dignity and compassion.  As Christians we have a relationship to the cross that looks foolish to others, but to us is the wisdom and power of God.  Where the world sees shame, we see dignity. Where the world sees despair we see hope. Where the world sees death, we see new life.

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul puts it somewhat polemically, “For while the Jews call for miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here we are preaching a Messiah nailed to a cross.” What I hear Paul describing is a third way between the poles of fatalism and rationalization. Rather than declare that “it would take a miracle to get us out of this mess” (a straw man characterization of Jewish political and ethical thought, to be sure) or philosophizing that this failed under-regulated free market experiment is the best of all possible worlds (though acknowledging that there are plenty of political and philosophical traditions that very effectively critique the corruption of capitalism), the Christian response to the scandal of the cross is to affiliate, to associate, to allow ourselves to be nailed in solidarity to those who hang with Jesus in places of unjust suffering.

And this is a consequence of our baptisms, in which we are joined with Christ and called to take up his ministry of clearing away anything in church or society that stands between the doorway where we sing “all are welcome” and the altar where we say “the gifts of God for the people of God.”  Whether we chose to be baptized or were brought to the font by our parents, our lives have been dedicated to the service of a living God that stands against every idol that would reduce us to mere cogs in the machine, mere servers on the line. Who liberates us from every oppression, and gives us a law that calls us to participate in the liberation of our neighbors. Whose covenant love is not just for us, but through us.