Sermon: Sunday, October 9, 2016: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-15c  +  Psalm 111  +  2 Timothy 2:8-15  +  Luke 17:11-19

man-silhouetteThis man is revolting. He is rotten, inside and out. He is toxic, and whatever he’s got, it is spreading. It spreads from person to person, and if we’re not careful it will consume our whole nation. There is a place for folks like him, and it’s not among decent people. If it were up to me we’d send him somewhere we’d never have to see him again.

But somehow he’s still here. Despite the obvious rot, he is still treated as though he is a person of substance, a person deserving our attention and respect. Why is that? How is it that this man believes there to be one set of rules to govern the majority of people and a different set of rules that apply to him? Is it because he is wealthy? Is it because people are afraid of him, because of his history of combativeness? Is it because his exploits have made other people rich? Is it because he enjoys the favor of the ruling establishment, because he has the endorsement of the nation’s elites? Is that why he thinks he plays by different rules?

You know who I’m talking about, right? His reputation precedes him. He’s the kind of public figure who needs no more than a single name.

He is Naaman.


By 1530 it had been more than a decade since Luther had presented his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. Families, cities, and nations were deeply divided and the rhetoric used by each side to describe the other was so inflammatory it might actually make us feel better about our present electoral embarrassments. Writing against the Roman papacy Luther once remarked,

“You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell — full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils!”

And you thought “basket of deplorables” was rough? Luther had all the best words. Though Paul still advises us to avoid “wrangling” over them. (2 Tim. 2:14)

In 1530 the Lutherans were tasked with doing more than railing against all they did not agree with and could not support, but to make a positive statement of faith which became one of the most important documents of the entire Reformation, the Augsburg Confession. In it, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other early theologians of the Lutheran reform movement found new words to share the good news of the free gift of God’s love, justice, mercy, and liberation. Describing what we have come to know as the doctrine of justification, the Augsburg Confession says,

“It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (AC IV)

Later, because we have such a hard time believing that our standing before God has everything to do with God’s grace and nothing to do with our goodness, the Lutherans had to write an explanation and defense of all they’d written in the Augsburg Confession, so they expanded their explanation of justification:

“Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits. But if the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless. For since we do not keep the law, it would also follow that the promise of reconciliation would never apply to us … For if the promise required the law and condition of our own merits, it would follow that the promise is useless since we never keep the law.” (Apol IV.42)



Baptisms still take place in the River Jordan.

Still, God does not simply meet us where we are — God graciously changes us, though in practice it can feel like anything but a gift. For Naaman, change came in accepting that he was no better than any other of God’s own people. There was no special water reserved for people like him. There was no elite baptism. God’s love and God’s justice are strong enough that they do not fail to encompass even a narcissistic, belligerent fellow like Naaman; but God’s love and God’s justice do change Naaman who, in the end, takes his place among all God’s ordinary saints, proclaiming that there is no God in all the earth but the one who met Israel in the waters of liberation from slavery, who met them in the crossing of the Jordan as they entered into a promised land, the same God who meets us at the font.

If the story of Naaman is just a story about how God works through ordinary water to heal and restore people to fullness of life, I can accept it. It’s a miracle story from Hebrew scripture that prefigures the Christian sacrament of baptism, so let’s just sing “All Are Welcome” and continue feeling good about ourselves. And if the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is just a bit of Reformation history, passed down through the generations for confirmands to memorize, then I can manage it. It’s one more bit of theology in one more book on one more shelf to be referenced in one more sermon.

But this story and our history is more than that.

The story of Naaman is the voice of our ancestors telling us that there will always be rotten bullies spreading their illness, getting preferential treatment, enjoying the spoils of war and the approval of the nation. Still, God meets them in the water. The power of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is that it tells the truth about me. That too often I believe I have earned my place in this world when in reality my successes are the products of a wide set of factors, many of which I have no control over and for which I can claim no credit: my race, my gender, my class, my nationality.

Even more fundamentally, the doctrine of justification reminds me that I am not a good person. I am filled with anger at others but minimize my own failures. I set goals and intentions for myself that I am not able to keep. I delight in the public embarrassments of those I consider hypocrites and pray that my own hypocrisies will remain hidden. I judge people. I judge them over important things and over petty things. But if I stood before God’s judgment, as I do, as we all do, I would come up lacking. When we stand before God’s judgment, we come up lacking. We are rotten. And still, God meets us in the water.

reformation500-enOur stories and our histories, our confessions and our doctrines, are not abstractions for us to agree or disagree with, they are our attempts to describe reality as we have experienced it in our skin. As we begin this 4-week series looking at the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation at the start of the global observance of its 500th anniversary, we are reminded that our history as a movement within Christianity includes the fact that we were born at a moment no less political, no less violent, no less corrupt, no less horrifying than the one we’re currently in. This week’s outrageous statements shock us, but they should not surprise us. Honestly, we’ve all heard worse. The depth of the divide in our nation scares us, but it should not defeat us. Our nation has been through worse, more than once, and so has the Church. If these recurring atrocities of human nature should convince us of anything, it is that human nature is inherently atrocious.

Therefore, it is a gift when we remember that Christ did not come to reward the righteous, but to save sinners. God did not come looking for perfection, but offering salvation. The Holy Spirit who breathed life into us as the first of many gifts comes to us over and over and over again to heal us, to justify us, to liberate us, to forgive us, to save us. What else can we say in response to such grace, such divine generosity, so many gifts, but “Thank you!”


Sermon: Sunday, October 30, 2011: Reformation Sunday: God’s Politics, “Damage Control & Spin Doctors”

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 3:19-28  +  John 8:31-36

It was not quite four years ago, and the presidential campaign was in full swing, when a controversy arose over comments made by the pastor of a Chicago congregation that was home to one of the front-runners in the race. The candidate was Barack Obama, the pastor was Jeremiah Wright, and the comments concerned Pastor Wright’s interpretation of the events of September 11. At a time when our nation was paralyzed by polarized thinking – when the only way to be for us was to be against them – Jeremiah Wright made the near-blasphemous suggestion that the attacks of September 11th were attributable, at least in part, to our country’s economic exploitation and military presence throughout Africa and the Middle East.

PrintIt was an embarrassment for then-candidate Obama. Pastor Wright was the public voice and the prophetic conscience of one of the largest Black churches on the South Side of Chicago. Obama’s membership in that congregation was a sign of his deep roots in the African-American community and his solidarity with South-siders of all stripes. It was painful to watch pastor and president-to-be position themselves against one another. Eventually, in an act of damage control for his campaign, Barack Obama resigned his membership in the church.

The president at that time, George Bush, was quite familiar with the tactics of damage control and spin doctoring, sometimes both at once, as when his former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, released a memoir of his time in that position asserting that White House officials, including the president, relied on an aggressive political propaganda campaign to sell the Iraq war to the American people.

Spin doctors and damage control are permanent fixtures in today’s politics. Spin doctoring is the art of interpreting events in their most beneficial aspect for the benefit of the candidate, the elected official, the campaign, the party, etc. Damage control is that set of actions taken to limit the negative effects of any story that might hurt the candidate, official, and so on. As citizens and voters the words hit our own ears with a harsh tone, because we are so accustomed to our politicians protecting their self-interest through the tactics of spin doctoring and damage control.

These past few weeks we’ve been considering God’s Politics however, and we’ve opened ourselves up to the idea that the candidate for office God is backing is you, is each one of us. So, when God sets out to do damage control on our campaign, or to spin the story for positive effect, how might those efforts hit our ears? The answer isn’t far away, in fact, it’s shot all through this morning’s scriptures.

Consider the passage from Jeremiah. There we hear that God’s candidates had made campaign promises they failed to live up to. Specifically, they’d made a covenant with God, that they would be God’s people in a land filled with other gods, other values demanding their worship. Like many campaign promises, this one was broken not long after it was made, as the people of Israel found it more convenient or more profitable to offer their allegiance to the false gods of power and wealth.

Yet, rather than toss them aside like so much collateral damage in today’s political and military tactics, God remains faithful to God’s candidates even when they are unfaithful to God. God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33b-34)

Here we see that God’s Politics are an entirely different sort than the ones we’ve grown accustomed to. Faced with political embarrassment, with gross infidelity on the part of the candidates, with broken campaign promises, God does damage control not for the sake of God’s honor, but for the sake of God’s people. God does not cast aside those who struggle, those who fail, to live up to the planks of God’s platform. Instead, God spins the covenant in a new way. Remembering the law written on the tablets given to Moses at Mount Sinai, God declares through Jeremiah that God will write the law once again, but this time on our hearts, on flesh and not stone.

In the epigraph to his newest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer includes a quote from author Terry Tempest Williams in a 2004 article from Orion magazine. She writes,

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?[i]

Might this be what it means for God to have written God’s law on our hearts? That we have been called in our candidacy to consider our relationship to our neighbor not out of obligation, but out of love? That we have been called to listen and learn, rather than speak and judge? That we have been called to work “courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever” for the common good, for the ways of being that promote the most life for the most people? For the 99% and not the 1%. Could it be that God’s spin on the covenant is also how God does damage control for all of God’s people?

Candidates, and I mean all of you (and me as well), I have to tell you something about God’s Politics that runs counter to much of what’s being preached in the public square today. God is not a rugged individualist and God’s prophets do not preach the gospel of personal responsibility and self-reliance. One of my favorite preachers, Jim Gertmenian of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, put it this way in his sermon last week,

Personal responsibility and self-reliance are fine values, as far as they go, but the heart of Christianity is in another place altogether. It has to do with community, with helping one another, with being vulnerable to one another, with being in this together, not with the rugged individualist who goes it alone. And by the way, the next time someone piously quotes to you the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” as a justification for cutting social programs, will you please remind that person that those words do not come from scripture, they were never spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, they come from Benjamin Franklin.[ii]

Or, in more ancient words, it is as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans,

“then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:27-28)

It is Reformation Sunday, so I would be remiss if, as a Lutheran, I did not make some mention of Martin Luther’s challenge to the powers and principalities of his day, of his confrontation with the Roman church over the sale of indulgences and his act of nailing 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. I don’t think, however, that our brother Martin was looking for fame or annual homage when he took this public action. No, I think he had more in common with those who now occupy the public spaces of cities across the nation this morning, demanding a politics and an economy worthy of the human spirit.

Luther’s rebellious act, which we commemorate today, was a form of civil protest over financial abuses committed by the church and carried out on the backs of the poorest of the poor. Holding their fear of hell over their heads, the church was selling indulgences, guarantees of the forgiveness of sin, as if that was ever theirs to offer. Freedom, Luther preached (recalling Jesus’ words to his opponents, recalling Jeremiah’s prophetic spin doctoring), comes from the deepest truth that in God’s love we are all forgiven, for free, forever.

The demanding question God’s Politics ask of us today is: if all are loved, and all are forgiven, and all belong in this world by virtue of their divine parentage and not their earthly rank, then why do our politics continue to divide and conquer us?

It is four years later and the campaign is, as always in full swing. Once again there are words coming from a Chicago pulpit challenging the candidate to name the sins of empire for what they are. But this time the candidate is you, and empire is all around us. It’s not just about ending the war, though it is that. It’s not just about occupying Wall Street, or Main Street, though it is that as well. It’s about finally setting aside the polarized politics of us and them and remembering God’s spin on the covenant, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” It is not the politics of the 99%, or the 1%, but of the 100%. It is God’s Politics, and we are its ambassadors.





Sermon: Sunday, September 11, 2011– First Sunday in Season of Creation, Forests

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-22  +  Psalm 139:13-16  +  Acts 17:22-28  +  John 3:1-16

Preparing to preach on a morning like this one has been like trying to tell the trees from the forest. On a day like today there is so much going on, how do you narrow it down? How do you focus on one thing? One tree in the forest?

For months, preachers, their colleagues and their friends, have been asking each other, “What do you say on the 10th anniversary of September 11th?” The fact that this particular date falls on the first Sunday after Labor Day, which many churches (including our own) traditionally set aside as “Rally Sunday” just complicates things. On the very day that we’re trying to welcome people back from a summer filled with travel and Sunday morning diversions, the nation (and its news outlets) is consumed with the festering wound of a tragedy ten years old. How do we do both things? How do we focus on a single tree in the forest of our individual and collective preoccupations?

Then there is the fact that today we are not only welcoming each other home from the summer; we are not only marking the decade’s passing since 9/11; we are also entering into a new season in the liturgical life of the church – the Season of Creation – which we will observe for five weeks in worship, beginning with today’s recognition of forests as a vital part of God’s Creation, a part groaning under the weight of environmental degradation and human sin. How do we, literally, focus on the tree in the middle of this forest of competing claims on our attention?

apple treeMartin Luther, a man not unfamiliar with the anxiety brought on by the crumbling of institutions, the horrors of war, and the terror of threats against one’s life, is famously remembered as saying, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

It’s in that spirit that I want to leave behind, for the moment, talk of 9/11 and summer vacations and Rally Sunday, and talk about trees. A tree planted today will take years to grow to maturity and, depending on where it’s planted and how it’s cared for, may well outlive everyone in this room. A tree planted today is a sign of hope in the very existence of the future.

Which is precisely why we should be horrified by the destruction of God’s forests, the fragile ecosystems they shelter, and the web of interdependence of which we ourselves are a part.

In the century from 1850 to 1950, half of the world’s forests were destroyed. They were torn out of the ground along the world’s riverbanks to facilitate riverboat shipping. They were clear cut from the central plains of the Midwest to make way for farms. They were eliminated throughout South America, Africa and Asia to make way for the emerging global food system. Some environmental scientists now project that in twenty years only 10% of the forests that covered the earth two hundred years ago will remain.

This one devastation, among the many being wreaked upon the earth, has far-reaching consequences. Tropical deforestation produces more global-warming pollution than the total emissions of every car, truck, plane, ship and train on Earth. It is changing the air we breathe, as water that would normally be released into the atmosphere through the roots and trunks and leaves of trees is taken out of circulation in a pattern that quickly leads to soil erosion and flooding. Worst of all, our destruction of the world’s forests has eliminated the natural habitats of tens of thousands of species which are now extinct from the Earth and can never be recovered.

When Christians and Jews tell our creation stories, we begin by remembering that we were made after the sun and moon, the skies and seas, the flora and the fauna. They are rightly remembered as our sisters and brothers every bit as much as we, who were washed in God’s creative waters at baptism, call each other “brother” and “sister.”

Genesis 2 says, “then the LORD God formed [humanity] from the dust of the ground,” a fact we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday as we’re marked with the cremains of burnt palm leaves, tree leaves waved as we sung hosannas to Christ making his way to the suffering tree where they hung him.

Psalm 139 say, “My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth,” and we’re reminded of that Norwegian hymn sung during the season of Lent, “Seed that in earth is dying rises to bear much fruit. Christ, as we meet at your table, give us the bread of life.”[i] Our life comes from the ground, and the new life we find as we follow Jesus into the broken, hurting places of God’s Creation follows as naturally as new growth breaks through ground burnt by fire or frozen by winter.

In recent history, and I use recent here thinking of the grand scope of human history stretching back thousands and thousands of years, so in last few hundred years our imaginations have contracted a bit with reference to God’s Creation, even in the church. When we preach and teach healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration we too often speak only of our relationship to other people, our families, or sometimes really only with reference to ourselves. We take the grand story of the trinitarian God – the one who created the world and everything in it, who took on earthy substance in Jesus to identify with and redeem the suffering of every part of Creation, whose Holy Spirit blows like the wind and burns like tongues of fire – and we domesticate it, make it all about us, our needs, our hurts, our sufferings.

Martin Luther had a saying about this as well. He described sin as the state of being “turned in on one’s self.” Imagine being bent over so thoroughly that your eyes couldn’t see past your belly button and you’ll understand what he was talking about. Paul, speaking to the Athenians, tried to convey a sense of the grandeur of God’s Creation when he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…” Instead “[God] is not far from each one of us. For in [God] we live and move and have our being…. ‘For we too are [God’s] offspring.’”

It’s for our sake, not God’s, that we build sanctuaries like the beautiful one that shelters us this morning. God, who formed the mountains, doesn’t need our terrazzo marble floors. God, who planted the ancient redwoods, doesn’t need our wormy chestnut rafters. But we need the rivers from which we drink, the skies that shelter our planet, the land that feeds us.

And the trees. The trees that produce fruit for us to eat, wood for us to build, pulp for us to write, shade for us to rest, and air. Air for us to breathe.

The whole world is God’s sanctuary, a word that means both “safe” and “holy.” When we treat Creation, of which we are a part and not the whole, as if it exists for our benefit, for our pleasure, then we reject the role God gave humanity in the garden, to till it and keep it – not to plunder and destroy it. We make our world neither safe nor holy.

Liberation theology listens to scripture with the ears of the oppressed. In this Season of Creation we are invited to listen to scripture with the ears of the earth and all its creatures. Listen to the creation story from the point of view of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. God brought them before the first human, and we named them, the way we might name a child, the way God named us. Created in the image and likeness of God, we were created to be family with all of earth.

When we deny our interconnection with any part of the web of creation, we tear at the whole of it. This is why, ultimately, we cannot separate the forest from the tree, they are all part of one another, even as we are all part of one another. The suffering of the tree is not compared to the suffering of the human being, it is inseparable. Jesus Christ, God wrapped in earth and flesh is nailed to the tree, for both the tree and the human being. The gospel of John says, “for God so loved the world.”

The fragile balance of earth and sea and sky that sustains human life is no more fragile than God wrapped in the fragile flesh of an infant born in the shadow of the Roman Empire, or the American one. The horrors of September 11th are the most visible manifestations of a state of being upon this earth in which we cannot tell that we are all connected to each other. The clear cutting of rainforests in Brazil, Canada, Thailand and Tanzania and the genocides of Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Germany are interconnected as well.

Appreciating this can feel like learning a new language, like regaining the sense of sight. In truth, appreciating the extent to which we are all connected – the earth and sky and sea and all their creatures, including us – will take something like being born again. A new way of living we struggle to understand every bit as much as Nicodemus. A way of living connected to our baptism, where the waters that surrounded us in utero are replaced with the waters of the world, expanding our family tree to include all of Creation.

We celebrate the Season of Creation, we don’t commemorate it, because by faith Creation is always and already. It has happened, and it is happening again, and it will keep happening until all of Creation is healed and reconciled to itself. To plant a tree is a sign of hope for a future none of us will live to see, but is as certain as our next breath.

The world is always shouting the horrors of the past at us with full throat, always trying to terrify us into paralysis. But the promise of the gospel, on full display at Christ’s hanging tree, is that God has reconciled us to God’s self, to each other, and to all of Creation, precisely so that our past cannot define our future.

So I am with Luther. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”


[i] “Seed That in Earth Is Dying,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 330.