Messages

Message: A Week of Historic Joy and Lament

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

How do we even begin to name the torrent of emotions that have washed over us this week, even on this single day?

Like many of you, Kerry and I have sat in our living room, glued to our televisions, receiving news of new terrorist attacks across Europe and North Africa, watching the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Mother Emanuel AMC in Charleston, and finally hearing the words we’ve waited a lifetime to hear from the Supreme Court of the United States: the constitution grants same gender couples the right to marry.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Earlier this week our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, called on the congregations of the ELCA to commit this Sunday’s worship service to public lament of the murder of those killed at Mother Emanuel AMC last week when a white terrorist entered the church and murdered a group of our sisters and brothers engaged in bible study and prayer. In her letter to the ELCA, Bishop Eaton wrote,

Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, as was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, associate pastor at Mother Emanuel. The suspected shooter is a member of an ELCA congregation. All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.

Bishop Eaton goes on to name this horrific event a direct consequence of our historic and ongoing sin of racism.

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Plaintiff Jim Obergefell

In his first comments on the steps of the Supreme Court, Jim Obergefell — one of the plaintiffs in the marriage equality case — made it a point to say that this step forward for human and civil rights does not preclude the possibility of steps back for others and named the horror of last week’s killings in Charleston as evidence of this. He called on the nation to continue working against the scourge of racism even as he celebrated today’s historic ruling for LGBTQ equality and civil rights.

For that reason, when we gather as a congregation this coming Sunday we will be lamenting the ongoing loss of brothers and sisters to gun violence and racism, even as we are strengthened and encouraged by the promise of the gospel: that in Christ we are a new creation. As we live in the tension of the already and the not yet, we will offer thanks for signs of that inevitable future in which the indelible image of God imprinted on each of our souls is made visible by the way we live with and love one another.

Then, many of us will join the Pride festival pouring through the streets of Chicago as our city joins others around the country in celebrating the new freedom and dignity enjoyed by LGBTQ people, which ennobles our common humanity.

Rejoicing in the Lord always,

Pastor Erik

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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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 28, 2013: Fifth Sunday ofEaster

Texts:  Acts 11:1-18  +  Psalm 148  +  Revelation 21:1-6  +  John 13:31-35

Apostles dream, and then they act.

This passage from Acts stirred up some lively debate among the pastors with whom I gather each Tuesday morning to study the scriptures in preparation for preaching.  There was some concern that the story is too bizarre, too removed in its images and symbols to be easily understood by today’s readers.  In a few short verses we hear words like “uncircumcised,” “trance,” “beasts of prey,” “kill and eat.” and “profane.”  It’s a lot of language to have to explain, and no one wants a sermon that sounds like a lecture.

Others were quick to point out how important this passage has been for Christians of every time and place for understanding how the early church opened itself up to people and communities that had previously been excluded.  It’s a text worth teaching, precisely because of humanity’s propensity for provincialism.  Our inclination to imagine that God’s beloved community is composed of people just like us.

As I was weighing the merits of these two perspectives, I learned that there were plans underway for a rally in Logan Square this weekend by a group of Christians, organized by the Illinois Family Institute, protesting marriage equality for same-gender couples on biblical grounds and I decided there is no better time to dive into the rich, if unfamiliar, world of Acts 11.

The first words in need of explanation are the distinction between the believers who were in Jerusalem and the Gentiles.  The “believers in Jerusalem” were the early church, the disciples who had known and followed Jesus.  They were mainly Jewish people living in Jerusalem, still relating to the Temple and the worship that went on there.  They were circumcised as a matter of religious law hearkening back to the covenant God made with Abraham, and which continues to this day in observant Jewish families.  Though they had experienced the liberating, life-giving power of Jesus in their own lives, they still seemed to understand the significance of his life, death and resurrection as being for them, and for people like them.

The Gentiles were people not like them.  The Gentiles were people who were definitionally unclean.  The books of Moses, the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, were filled with clear laws about how faithful people were to keep themselves separated from people not of the faith; how clean people were to keep themselves separated from unclean people; how the circumcised were to keep themselves from the uncircumcised.  This is the religious divide lurking behind the line, “so when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  We might translate their question “why did you break the laws of our faith by associating with people who are not like us?”

By way of explaining himself, Peter relates to them a vision that came to him while he was praying in the city of Joppa.  Joppa was the same city from which the prophet Jonah (famous for his journey in the belly of the whale) was sent out to the wicked people of Nineveh.  This historical detail, while minor, establishes an important resonance for the present story: just as God showed care and concern for the people of Nineveh, people far from the nation of Israel, and sent them a prophet  — even a prophet who did not want to go — to bring them back into relationship with their Creator, so God is acting now and always to reach out to people and places imagined to be beyond God’s care and concern to include them in God’s beloved community.

So, while praying in Joppa, Peter receives a vision in which “something like a large sheet was coming down from heaven.”  In this sheet are “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.”  In other words, this sheet from heaven is filled with all sorts of things that Hebrew scripture called unclean according to Levitical law.

Chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus is where we find detailed instructions about what foods are clean and unclean.  It begins,

Speak to the people of Israel, saying: … Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud — such you may eat. (Lev. 11:2-3)… Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams, such you may eat (Lev. 11:9)… These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard, the kite of any kind; every raven of any kind; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind (Lev. 11:13-16)…”  These are unclean for you among the creatures that swarm upon the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind, the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. (Lev. 11:29)

And so on.  You get the idea.  These things are unclean, even an abomination, and are not to be touched, certainly not to be consumed, to allowed entrance into the body.

But this is not all that the book of Leviticus calls unclean or an abomination. Another section of the book of Leviticus detailing what is clean and what is not, often referred to as the holiness code, is found in chapters 17-26.  These are the chapters where we read that “you shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Lev. 17:14)  We also read, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.  You shall not make any gashes on your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” (Lev. 19:28); and “if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10); and “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).

So Peter, while praying in Joppa, has seen a vision in which all manner of abominable beasts are brought before him, and Peter is instructed to make a meal of them.  To take that which was considered unclean, and to allow it to enter his body.  He replies, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” (Acts 11:8)  But the voice from heaven insists in what must be considered the heart of this passage, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 11:9)

What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

This happens three times, the same number of times Peter had previously denied Jesus, the same number of times Jesus requested that Peter feed his sheep and tend to his lambs, as if to say that these creatures too, like the sheep and the lambs, like the wicked people of Nineveh, are cared for by the good shepherd.

And then, just as he is coming out of this trance, a group of Gentiles, the uncircumcised, the unclean, arrive at the house where Peter was praying and invite him to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, uncircumcised, unclean and the Holy Spirit moves in Peter, telling him to go with these men anyways.  So he goes, and he breaks the laws of Leviticus, and he enters the home of a Gentile, and he begins to preach to that household and the Holy Spirit falls on those outsiders just as it had on Peter and all the disciples on the first day of Pentecost.

Seeing this evidence of God’s presence among people categorically dismissed as unclean, Peter comes to a new realization, “if God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

If God gave them the same gift that God have us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?

Brothers and sisters, can you imagine what thrilling and terrifying times these must have been for the early church?  For these people, who understood themselves to be good, law-abiding, upright, and clean?  For these people, who understood themselves as inheritors of a covenant with God?  Can you imagine what it must have been like for the early church in Jerusalem to get this report from Peter, their leader, that God in Christ Jesus was rewriting the rules.  That the outsiders were welcome in.  That the insiders were being sent out.  That the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the profane, were becoming indistinguishable from each other?

I would have expected that they would have said something like, “but the Bible says…” or “but Torah says…”  God knows we hear plenty of that these days, as people march down our streets with signs quoting passages from Leviticus, presuming to tell us whom God hates. But this morning’s story from Acts tells us that God loves those whom the world hates.  God makes clean those whom the world calls dirty.  God welcomes in those the world shuts out.

And, what God has made clean, we must not call profane.

And, if God gave them the same gift God gave us, who are we to hinder God?

But the people in Jerusalem, the early church, did not say, “but the Bible says… ” or “but Torah says…”  Instead, they perceived that God was doing a new thing.  That the God who is revealed in scripture is not bound to scripture, but instead the other way around.  That scripture reveals over and over again a God who refuses to be bound to our prejudices, refuses to be defeated by our failures, refuses to be broken like our promises.  Our scriptures reveal a God who is willing to rewrite scripture in order to get all of God’s beloved creation back into relationship with God and with one another.  The church in Jerusalem says, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

What a great story for us to inherit!  A story that says, “yes, I know what the Bible says, but I’m saying a new thing!”  “See, I am making all things new!  Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:5)  Into a world filled with laws that divide us, one from another; into a world filled with faiths that struggle to find harmony between themselves;  into a world filled with people, longing to be free, to come home, to belong, God establishes a new commandment, a new law, a new righteousness for those who are called children of God.

Right here in Logan Square, just blocks away from where we are now worshipping, people gathered this weekend to make a public witness to their faith.  Some carried signs quoting Leviticus and its laws, but my favorites were carried by those who were marching in support of marriage equality for same-gender couples, like the placard that read, “John 13:34-35”

Marriage Equality Rally in Logan Square

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is what God’s apostles dream.  This is how God’s apostles act.

Amen.

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