Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 27, 2017: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6  +  Psalm 138  +  Romans 12:1-8  +  Matthew 16:13-20

IMG_1067When we were together last weekend, I shared with you the news that I’d spent last Saturday evening at the hospital with Dea Checchin and her family, gathered around her hospital bed, sharing stories and surrounding her with prayer in the final hours of her life. She died later that night, though I didn’t find that out until after we’d finished worship last Sunday. A couple days later, this past Tuesday morning, my grandmother died. She’d led a long, full life, but the final weeks and days were hard as she labored to deliver herself unto death.

Both of these women taught me volumes about faith. On many occasions I shared with Dea my awe at her profound trust that God was with her and had provided enough. Two years ago, as we were moving from the old church building into this new space, she was moving out of her home and into assisted living. On her very first night there, her husband, Lino, passed away. A week later her son-in-law Gary died as well. Yet, when I visited with Dea after these traumas, she was always ready to tell me how fortunate she felt, how God had blessed her with a loving family and had taught her over the course of a lifetime about grace and forgiveness. It was one of the things I loved most about Dea — that, as quick as she was to speak (and often pretty bluntly), she was even quicker to forgive, herself and others. She knew God as the love that redeems, and she was always happiest in worship when we sang the old hymns that proclaimed the mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice for people like her, like us.

My grandma Blanche became my grandma about halfway through my internship year at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Toms River, New Jersey. Up until then she’d just been a member of my internship committee, who took her responsibilities seriously and made a point of taking me out to lunch once a month to ask how my internship was going and to hear me reflect on what I was learning. About halfway through that year my life got really hard. My great-grand-aunt died, then my maternal grandmother, and then my sister went missing for a month and a half. I felt like the survivor of a great shipwreck, drifting out in the middle of the ocean, alone in a life raft waiting for someone to come looking for survivors. Into that lonely devastation came Blanche who told me that she would be my grandmother. It seemed like a kind thing to say, a gesture of sympathy, but that’s not what it was at all. IMG_0631For the next fifteen years, Blanche went out of her way to introduce herself to my family and friends. She made a trip in her mid-80s to Des Moines to get to know my parents. At the age of 93 she travelled to Chicago for my and Kerry’s wedding. She taught me a lesson I’ve learned over and over in my life: that all family is chosen family, and that the power of God working through each one of us is the power to create families wherever we are, whenever it’s needed. She knew Jesus as the love that claims us, even when our own flesh and blood may struggle to do so. She also left me with a file folder full of hymns and suggestions for her funeral, which will be a great help when it comes time to plan her memorial service next month.

But, however much I loved, respected, adored these women, their faith cannot take the place of my own faith. I cannot know God simply by living in close proximity to people who know God, by singing their songs and praying their words. I’m not saying it doesn’t help. In fact, it’s basically how each of us begins our faith journey, by adopting the words and gestures and customs and rituals of our parents and grandparents, or the friends who brought us to worship, or even the strangers who sit next to us in the pews (which I still feel obligated to say, even though we now sit in stacking chairs — as if all seating, when used for religious purposes, becomes a pew). But, at some point, I have to have my own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Map-of-Upper-GalileeWhen Jesus asks his followers this question, they have just arrived in Caesarea Philippi. That was the new name for an ancient Roman city far to the north of the Sea of Galilee in the region of the modern nation of Israel called the Golan Heights. “Caesarea” marked it as part of the Roman Empire, “Philippi” referred to Herod Philip II, the son of King Herod who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth and had called for the slaughter of the holy innocents. Philip was also brother to Herod Antipas, the one who had called for the death of John the Baptist.

All of which is to say that, when Jesus asks those who follow him who they say he is, they are all very aware that they are living in a moment when violent rulers have taken over, rebranding everything around them to serve as a reflection of their own glory, erasing the past and moving against anyone who questioned their authority — including, most recently, John the Baptist. It is in that setting, in a city named for the family that had murdered the man who’d baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, that Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

His previous question had been easier, when he’d asked what others were saying about him. They simply report what’s being said. “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus sharpens the question, requiring the disciples to step off the sidelines and speak for themselves.

Who do I say Jesus is? I know what my father and mother showed me. I know what I learned in confirmation, and then in seminary. I got a pretty good idea who Jesus was to Dea, and to Blanche. “Some say” a lot of things about who Jesus is, but the question is — who do I say that Jesus is?

Even for me to join Peter in proclaiming that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” isn’t enough, since Peter’s declaration of faith is yet one more instance of received tradition, a formulaic response to a question that is, at its heart, all about relationship. “Who do you say that I am?” How am I the messiah, the long-awaited redeemer of Israel? In what way am I a “Son”? What does it mean to be a child of the “living” God?

Here’s what I believe.

I believe that Jesus was and is the messiah, a word that derives from the Hebrew verb for anointing and was used not only in anticipation of a future ruler, but by various kings, high priests, and prophets throughout Israel’s history. For me it is important to proclaim Jesus the messiah, in part because it means that we are no longer waiting for God to send a savior to create and lead the world I want to live in. In the shadow of Rome, in a city named for a tyrant, Peter declares Jesus to be God’s messiah, and I’m with Peter. I am not waiting for God to send someone else to get us out of this mess. Jesus was baptized by John, and I was baptized into Jesus, and that’s all the authority I need in this life.

I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, which I most often render as “God’s own Beloved,” since that is what the voice from heaven called Jesus, “my Son, the Beloved.” (Matt. 3:17) What’s important about remembering and reclaiming the title of Son, with all its gendered baggage, is that Roman emperors were also called Son of God — not “beloved,” not “child,” but “son,” as a way of making clear the connection between empire and patriarchy: from God to emperor to nation. But I proclaim Jesus, the messiah, as the Beloved heir of God because I believe it is an act of rebellion to say that power does not flow from God to kings, but from God to the oppressed; to colonized people in every land and time, to movements of people that leave what they were taught to do behind and follow the sound of the genuine in themselves and one another until they arrive at that moment when they are called upon to testify to what they have seen and heard.

Which is why it is important to say that Jesus, the messiah, is the beloved heir of the living God, because it makes clear that God did not finish reforming the world with the prophet Elijah, or Jeremiah, or John the Baptist. God did not finish reforming the church with Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr.  God did not finish calling people to leave their nets and follow with Peter and the disciples, and God did not finish with me or with us with Dea and Blanche.

God is calling out to you right now to see yourselves as God sees you, as beloved children of the living God, anointed in your own baptisms and called to witness at a moment like this — when once again violent powers seek to erase the history of our land and remake it in their image. In this moment, we are not waiting for anyone who has not already been sent. You and I, baptized into the death and resurrection of the only messiah we need, are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Does that sound like an invitation to fear, timidity, weakness? By no means! “Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

And why do you suppose that was?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 13, 2014: Palm Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a  +  Philippians 2:5-11  +  John 12:20-43

On a morning when so much has already been different than usual — the earlier start time (ahem!), the blessing of the palm branches, the gathering with our neighbors — I feel obligated to share with you one more way that we’ve departed from the usual this day. Most Christian congregations, at least those that follow the lectionary, have heard a different gospel passage than the one we’ve just heard. They’ve heard the account of Christ’s passion on the cross from Matthew’s gospel, the tale of Jesus’ arrest and trial, suffering on the cross and death, and his burial in the tomb. This tradition of reading the passion story the Sunday before Easter is an old one, and comes from a time in the Protestant churches when our observance of the Three Days of Holy Week was less established. The logic was that in order to understand the meaning of Easter and experience the joy of the resurrection, we needed to witness Jesus’ death on the cross and consider its meaning for each of us and all of us.

Over the last few decades though, as Christians of all backgrounds and denominations have gradually recovered the ancient church’s keeping of the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, the lectionary’s logic has made less sense. The story of the arrest, crucifixion and death of Jesus is told on Good Friday, and many of you began to ask why that story needed to be heard twice in one week. The fact that you were asking the question was an indication of just how fully the traditions of the coming Three Days had taken root. So, at this, the beginning of Holy Week, I want to invite you once again to the discipline of these days. I want to ask you to clear your calendars, to make space in your busy lives, to enter fully into the passion of our Lord as he moves from the hopeful crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimate gathering with his friends on Maundy Thursday, to the agony of the cross on Friday, and then the gathering around fire and water and story and song at the Easter Vigil on Saturday. It’s a lot of church, to be sure, but as with so many things, the more we invest ourselves into the coming week, and one another, the deeper the rewards to our shared faith.

Having made the decision to save the remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion and death for Good Friday, however, the question of Palm Sunday remained. This is the day when we wave our palm branches and sing our hosannas, welcoming Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem. It is a day full of pageant, in the scriptures and in our own assemblies. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, and in Matthew’s gospel on a colt as well, in order to signal that he is the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s expectation of a messiah that would save them from their oppression. That is, in fact, the meaning of the word that marks this day, “hosanna.” It means “save us” or “rescue us.”

Why did the crowds that greeted Jesus in Jerusalem expect that he could save them? Throughout his ministry, Jesus had taught with authority, healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. As he moved through the countryside, among the people, he was not afraid to name the powers and principalities that held the people captive, that kept them oppressed. For their part, the people had long expected that God would send a messiah, one who would serve as their champion to liberate them from those who occupied God’s promised land. As we wave our branches this morning, we must ask, how are we like those who gathered on the streets of Jerusalem when Jesus, at last, came to town? Who have we been waiting for? From what powers do we long to be set free?

But his disciples, perhaps, weren’t so happy to see Jesus turn his face toward Jerusalem. Perhaps you remember last week, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill and decided to turn around and head back to Judea.  The disciples were afraid for his safety, saying “Rabbi, the Temple leaders were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Thomas seemed to know precisely what they were headed for, as he goaded the rest of the disciples to follow Jesus saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  They must have wondered, as we do, why Jesus walked willingly toward his own death, toward the cross.

In the passage from John’s gospel we read this morning, Jesus addresses precisely this question. It is full of sayings that have become so familiar, they almost overshadow everything else in the story: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” and “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  These remarkable declarations, however, are in response to something mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the passage, something easy to skim over.

“Now among those who went up to worship,” the passage begins, “were some Greeks.” Jesus, who had met with Pharisees and Samaritans alike, at this late hour in his ministry is now being sought out by Greeks, people whose religious and cultural backgrounds could not have been more foreign. They approach Andrew and Philip, who were among the first to follow Jesus when he spoke to them, saying “come and see” (John 1:39). Now these foreigners declare that they want to see Jesus, carrying echoes of that first meeting with Jesus across the Jordan where John had been baptizing (1:28).

4068603688_94b17a345cIn response to the news that these Greeks want to see him, Jesus offers a cryptic metaphor, “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” (12:24). This, for the gospel of John, is an image of salvation. When you imagine a stalk of wheat, you can see the staff that bears the kernels at the top, almost woven together by the husk that surrounds them. Each of those kernels, of course, is a seed that carries within it the code, all the information needed for the earth to produce another stalk of wheat which will produce enough seed to multiply the crop again, and again, until the stalk of wheat becomes a wheat field. A grain of wheat is nothing, Jesus reminds us, a field of wheat is everything, it is enough to feed the world, but only if the seed falls to the earth and the cycle of multiplication begins.

For the last six weeks, the adult education forum has been “making sense of the cross,” studying the theories of atonement that Christians have used over the centuries to explain to themselves and one another why Jesus’ death and resurrection makes a difference for the world. Some theories focus on a cosmic struggle between God and Satan in which all of humanity is held ransom. Some theories focus on a sense of debt that must be paid for the weight of human sin. Some theories emphasize the way that Jesus’ life and death provide a model for our own human living. In her commentary on John’s gospel, Professor Gail O’Day suggests that none of these theories of atonement quite matches up with what we find here in these verses from John. She writes,

“It is important to begin by remembering that theologies of atonement are in actuality theologies of reconciliation — that is, they attempt to explain how God and humanity were reconciled to one another in Jesus’ death … Sacrifice is one way of understanding reconciliation, but not the only way. Jesus’ sayings in John 12:23-36 suggest an alternative model of reconciliation, one that is built around the restoration of relationship … Jesus’ death is described as both necessary and life-giving because as a result of it community is formed. The discipleship teachings (vv. 25-26), which in [Matthew, Mark and Luke] define discipleship exclusively as taking up one’s cross, instead define discipleship as serving Jesus and make clear that the goal of such service is restored relationship with God and Jesus. The passion prediction (12:32) also focuses on relationship, that through Jesus’ death all people will be drawn to him … Throughout the Gospel, this new relationship to God and one’s fellow human beings is described in metaphors of new birth and new or eternal life … Jesus’ death has this effect, not because it is a sacrifice that atones for human sin, but because it reveals the power and promise of God and God’s love decisively to the world.”

When I think of atonement, or reconciliation, like this — as an act of love initiated by God, multiplied as it takes root in each of us and grows into lives of loving service to our neighbor that result in more kernels planted, more wheat grown, more bread baked, more lives fed, more love shared, more life lived — then I think I understand better what Jesus means when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  It’s not so much about loving and hating, as clinging to versus releasing. We might hear it as “those who cling to their life lose it, and those who release their life in this world will see it live on forever.”

Earlier this week I was with an ecumenical group of parish pastors, seminary professors, and judicatory leaders (meaning, people who serve the church at the synodical or national level, or their equivalents in other denominations) at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  We were asked to work together to try and define what we mean when we talk about “people of faith,” and to identify what conditions allow these communities to thrive. Our definitions were muddled, I think, shaped as they are by constructs and institutions that are, themselves, dying in so many ways, great and small. Over and over again however, those gathered returned to this idea, that the church need not be afraid of its own dying, of the things that are lost along the way, because we know and have always known that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” We know, and have always known, that what we cling to, we lose; but what we are willing to release for the sake of the world, we will have forever. Gail O’Day sees in these verses from John a much clearer definition of “people of faith.” She writes,

What is striking about [this passage from John] is that the connection between Jesus’ death and the life of the believing community is repeatedly stressed. The faith community consists of those who redefine the meaning of life on the basis of Jesus’ death. The faith community is the fruit of Jesus’ death; it is what shows forth Jesus’ love to the world.

In essence, the answer John’s gospel gives to the question of why Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, why he led his disciples to a place where he knew he would die, why he was greeted by the throng seeking salvation, is us.  Not just us, but all of us.

The answer to the question of why, is that it accomplished what it set out to do. It created a people of faith who each carry within ourselves the seeds of a love that starts and ends with God. Not a cosmic war, not a debt, not a job description, but a love that created the world and everything in it so much that it took on flesh and blood to get closer to us and bring us closer to one another. A love that saves us over and over again.

Look! Here it comes again, riding on a donkey and a foal just as we expected. Let us prepare once again this Holy Week, to be saved by love.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2011: Third Sunday of Advent: “New and Improved–Batteries Included”

Texts:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11  •   Psalm 126   •   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   •   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Help me out here for a minute. We’re going to play a game of free-association. When I say “John the Baptist” what comes to your mind?

(The assembly is invited and encouraged to call out words, phrases and images connected with John the Baptist.)

That’s a great assortment of associations, but I have to be honest and confess that for me, John the Baptist reminds me of the teenager who comes to church showing too much skin, or people who don’t remove their hats during the national anthem at the ballpark. It’s not wrong, per se, but it’s distracting.

That’s how John the Baptist always strikes me, he’s distracting. He gathers people outside the city walls, wearing animal skins and eating weird food, making apocalyptic threats and, ultimately, losing his head. He is strange and wild and dramatic. He’s riveting. He’s hard to take your eyes off of. He’s doing guerilla street theater, insisting that we give him our full attention and then, just when he’s got us, John reveals that he is not the main attraction, not the headliner, not the one we’ve come to see.

All the costume, all the pageant, all seems designed to grab our attention so that John can deliver his overlooked and possibly his most important prophetic word. It’s not the one you’re thinking. Not, “among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John’s most important prophetic word, I think, is his first response to the temple authorities who make a site visit in the wilderness to find out who this guy thinks he is. John provides them with a radically, deceptively, prophetically simple answer. He says, “I am not the Messiah.”

“I am not the Messiah.” That is John’s prophetic word for us this morning, so I’m going to ask you to repeat after me. Let’s preach John’s strong word together: “I am not the Messiah.” (“I am not the Messiah”) Again, “I am not the Messiah!” (I am not the Messiah!”)

Good! Now you are all prophets – just like John the Baptist! But do we understand what we’re saying, what John was saying, when we share in his proclamation that we are not the Messiah. I suspect we don’t, at least I’m sure I don’t. I know I’d like to believe, and generally conduct my life as though, I have the power to bend the world to my will. But I am not the Messiah, which means that I cannot be counted on to save anything. I can try my best, I may succeed at some things and fail at others, but I will never be the answer to any question of ultimate concern.

You are not the Messiah either. Odd how that sounds like an insult, when it should really come as a relief. Think about it. Consider the larger-than-life burdens this means you can finally lay down:

  • Parents, this means that despite the worries and burdens and pressure you feel to provide every opportunity for your children, you can relax a little bit. Frightening as it may be, you cannot control the world that surrounds your children and you cannot prevent every harm that might befall them. They will stumble along life’s path, they will hurt and be hurt, they will learn and grow, fail and succeed. You will always be a primal, formative influence in their lives – but you are not their saviors.
  • Children, this means that despite the pressures you feel to live up to your parents’ expectations, to make them proud, to carry on their traditions, to redeem their failures, to ease their grief, you can relax a little bit. No matter how dependent, or grateful, or resentful, or proud you are of your parents you are not their Messiah. You have your own separate existence and value apart from them, they are not defined by you any more than you are by them. You may be their most important relationship, but you are not their saviors.
  • Elders, this means that you are not responsible for ensuring that the legacy of all that you have learned, and experienced, and cherished is carried forward indefinitely into the future. God has reached out to you in amazing and powerful ways, but God will continue to reach out to the world to come in equally amazing and powerful ways – because that’s who God is, the one who saves and restores. You can lay that burden down, you are not the Messiah.
  • Young people, this means you are not responsible for maintaining and preserving the values and priorities, the dreams and visions of those who’ve gone before you. You have heard it said that you are the future, but you know your life is happening right now. You do not have to carry the weight of so much expectation from your bosses, your professors, your mentors, your elders. You are free to savor all the blessings of your one precious life right now, as it is happening. You are not the Messiah.

This is what John the Baptist says to the authorities who want to pin him down and lay the blame for civil unrest on his shoulders. They want him to say something as crazy as his clothes suggest he might be, but he does not. They ask him the question that faces each one of us, every day, as we go about the trying business of our lives, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”

In reply, John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Talk about grace under pressure. What a beautiful response. He says, “I am not the Messiah. I am the voice.”

  • I am not the news, I am the newscaster.
  • I am not the gospel, I am its preacher.
  • Or, in the terms we used with the children in this morning’s children’s sermon, I am not the light, I am the battery.

These two statements, taken together, represent so much freedom for us. The first, “I am not the Messiah,” frees us from the idolatry of believing that our thoughts, our beliefs, our prejudices, our practices, our habits, our methods, our culture, our nation, our politics, our religion are of primary importance. We are not God. It sounds silly and obvious to say it out loud, but so often we live our lives as though it were true.

flashlight batteriesThe second, “I am the voice,” guards against complacency, refuses self-negation and infuses with self-esteem, bespeaks a mandate, bestows a vocation, dignifies and ennobles our lives. God needs us. God has a message and we are its heralds. God has good news and we are its bearers. God so loved the world, and we are God’s lovers. God is light, and we are like the batteries in the flashlight – both perishable and essential.

The gospel says, “this is the testimony given by John.” St. Luke’s you have been testifying like John throughout your 111 years of ministry. You have been a voice in this neighborhood, across our city, throughout our church, and before the nations crying out, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”

Throughout this past year you have been offering your testimonies. Just like the religious authorities asked John, “what do you say about yourself,” you have been asked to share the faith that is in you as well.

  • You’ve done this in the one-on-one conversations with members of the Social Justice Team that helped shape the agenda of our work with the Community Renewal Society.
  • You’ve done it in small groups and bible studies and private conversations with one another.
  • Some of you have done it in front of the congregation, giving your testimony about how God has reached out to you and been present in your life.
    • Cynthia shared her faith story.
    • Judi talked about the church’s role in helping her and Bill raise their children.
    • Ben and Heather encouraged us to be proud of the ways that our commitment to the arts translates into real and practical resources for working artists – actors, dancers and musicians.
    • Pat reminded us that our community health mission has deep roots in a feeding ministry that has touched thousands of lives.
    • Dale showed us how a life lived in the church shapes us for service and supports us throughout life’s joys and sorrows.

You have all been giving your testimony, with words and with actions, and in the process you have been clearing a way for God’s presence to enter more fully into the world, one life at a time, starting with your own. You are not the Messiah but, oh, what powerful voices you have!

John the Baptist, so colorfully dressed, so dramatically inclined, was one you could not take your eyes off of. God used that, just as God is using our own colorful, dramatic lives as well. In times like these, when it can seem like the whole world is lost out in the wilderness, listening for good news, we can say with full humility and fuller confidence, “I am not the Messiah, but I am the voice!”

Amen.

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